Over the past 16 years, I've done a considerable amount of travel in Florida. I did some of this travel as a vacationing tourist, then as a cyclist, and more recently as a Florida snowbird. Living on the east coast, Florida has been an easy and warm place to get to. It's also a diverse and fun place to visit.
I can't say I've been everywhere (like Johnny Cash) nor am I an expert on Florida. But I've been to enough places that I felt I could share some of my Florida snowbird wisdom. This post is not meant to be complete or exhaustive. It's just my take on some areas and things to consider when snowbirding in Florida. Let me start by telling you why I started going to Florida.
Growing up in Maine, I endured my share of harsh winters. As a kid and young adult, it was actually a fun time because I was an avid skier. But as I got older and couldn't handle the black diamond trails any more, winters became something that I had to tolerate and wait out.
When I became a long distance cyclist, spring became a favorite time to head south for a week-long biking vacation. Even though I was still working, each March I would head to Florida for a week-long bike ride with the Bike Florida group. I did those rides for 8 years and got to explore many areas of north and central Florida from the seat of my bike. It was these rides that gave me the notion for escaping the New England winter and spending that time in Florida
When I retired 8 years ago, the winter escape notion became a reality. It was so easy to hop in my car, drive south for three days, and be back in summer like weather.
At first, we started out going down to Florida for a month and renting a condo. We began our stays near the northern east coast areas, which I was familiar with. Then we tried extending our stays to two months. We rented houses in The Villages and in New Smyrna Beach, condo's in St. Augustine Beach, and quickly got hooked on the snowbird lifestyle.
When I started RVing, I did the math and found out that renting a site at a Florida RV park for 2 months was much less expensive that renting a condo. It was a no brainer to turn a two months stay into three months. This year we'll be staying for four months.
We've spent our snowbird time at many places in Florida. You can see the places we've stayed on the map below. Some of these places have been for months at a time and others have been for a week or more.
Areas of Florida
Some may think that once you cross the border into Florida winter weather disappears and summer time magically appears everywhere. Based on my experience, that's not the case. Some areas can be down right chilly during the winter. Here's how I separate Florida into climates zones.
North Central - from the GA border down to Daytona, over to Ocala, and up to Lake City. Jacksonville, the east coastal areas, and Gainesville are the populated areas. Everywhere else is pretty rural. This area is more of as summer time destination and less of a snowbird destination. Winters can be chilly with daytime temps getting up into the 60's. Some days may hit the low 70's, but those are infrequent. Other than Daytona, the coastal areas are not as developed with high rises as they are in the southern area. There are some nice coastal State Parks in this area. Fort Clinch, Little Talbot Island, and Gamble Rogers all have camping near the water. Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine is one of my favorites places to stay.
The Panhandle - those areas west of Lake City to the Alabama border. Other than Tallahassee and the coastal areas, it's very rural. It's one of the most diverse and prettiest areas in Florida. Also, it's my favorite area to visit. The Emerald Coast with its white sand beaches and emerald colored water are beautiful. The area from Panama City to Fort Walton Beach is densely populated and a very busy area. Winter temps can be cold (in the 40's and 50's) and the weather can be wacky (e.g. snow, hurricanes). Like the North Central area it's more of a spring summer destination and winter is the off-season. My favorite area in the panhandle is the Forgotten Coast near Apalachicola. There are several nice beach side coastal State Parks in the panhandle. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is my favorite.
Central - those areas south of Daytona to Melbourne then over to Tampa and up to Ocala. The big cities of Orlando, Tampa, and St. Pete dominate this area. The large 55+ community of The Villages just south of Ocala is in this area. There are lots of RV parks along the I-4 and I-75 corridor. I did theme park trips when my kids were young so those aren't a draw for me but they are for many. We have spent snowbird time in the Tampa area and found the winter temperatures to be moderate with lots of days in the low 70s.
Southern - everything south of Melbourne to Tampa. The winter weather in this area is more warm with daytime temps in the 70's and 80s. Overnight freezes are rare. The coastal area from West Palm down to Miami is very developed. It can also be pricey. The gulf coast side is less developed and more laid back. I don't know the reason but this area seems to attract folks from the Canada, Central and Mid-West states. I like the gulf coast side the best. To me, folks on the gulf coast side seem more friendly. The winter weather is warm, it's doesn't have the high-rise sprawl like the Atlantic side, and the casual atmosphere is easy to take.
Securing a Place to Stay
If you want to spend some snowbird time in FL, I recommend that you reserve a place ahead of time. Heading to FL during the key winter months of January thru March without any reservations is a recipe for major disappointment. Most of the nicer RV parks and campgrounds in popular areas are booked months in advance
Florida's State Parks are popular places during the winter because of the price and their locations. But stays are limited to 14 days. Sites can be reserved a year in advance and in some places like the Keys, they are booked within minutes of becoming available. The demand for campsites seems to follow the weather. State Parks in the southern area get booked up more quickly compared to the Northern areas.
For my winter stays at Florida State Parks, I've booked six months in advance and have always found a site. If you wait until October and November, the selection and duration will be limited. Many state parks hold a certain number of sites for walk ins. The popular municipal Fort Desoto Park near St. Petersburg gets booked up quickly. Non-residents can reserve sites 6 months in advance and the good sites get taken quickly.
Private RV parks are popular places for snowbirds. Many offer amenities like swimming pools, pickleball, tennis courts, and cable TV. The social amenities like theme dinners, card nights, golf outings, and dances are also draws for the snowbirds. Parking shoulder to shoulder for a few months in an RV park may not be for everyone. But I have found that the social interactions and making new friends is an unexpected benefit of the RV park lifestyle.
Many RV parks offer seasonal discounted rates for month-long stays. The park where I stay in Fort Myers Beach offers seasonal rates for 3 month stays. Many snowbirds find a park they like and then keep returning year after year. Some parks cater to their returning customers and will let you keep the same site as long as you reserve it a year in advance. This is what we have started doing. Before we leave Fort Myers Beach in April, we'll book our reservations for the following year.
Renting a house or a condo, works almost the same as getting a campground or RV site. You need to book in advance. Many local realty companies offer rentals or you can try sites like vrbo.com and airbnb.com.
If you rent a house or condo, you may not get the social interactions that you can get at an RV park. I found this to be true when we rented at St. Augustine Beach and at New Smyrna Beach. The Villages is an exception to that statement. We spent one winter renting a house in The Villages and it was one of the most fun times we've had. I played golf all winter on the free golf courses, rented a golf cart to get around, took several dance lessons, and went to music events just about every night. It was a blast and I really got hooked on that lifestyle. When my RVing days come to an end, I may settle down in The Villages.
One strategy for finding a place is to select some different areas and do short stays to see how you like it. Trying different areas for a week at a time is a great way to explore Florida and find out which areas appeal to you.
The cost to stay as a Florida snowbird is all over the place. As I mentioned above, the coastal areas are more expensive than being inland.
The Florida State Parks are the best deal at around $28 per night for most parks (some are less and some are higher). But you are limited to a 14 day stay. You can move around to different sites within a park, but in many parks you must leave the park for 3 days before you can return. The max number of days you can stay at a specific State Park is 56 days within 6 month window. Moving to different parks is also an option.
Private RV park rates vary widely. A beach front site at the Red Coconut RV Park in Fort Myers Beach will run you over $100 per night (no seasonal rate is offered). The monthly winter rate at Bryn Mawr RV Resort at St. Augustine Beach is around $1,200 per month ($40/night). A seasonal 3 month rate at Blueberry Hill RV Resort in Bushnell will cost around $600 per month ($20/day).
For a 4 month stay at Fort Myers Beach (just a mile from the beach), I pay a monthly winter rate that averages out to be around $37 per night. The normal daily rate is $62 per day.
Boondocking opportunities in Florida are limited. There is dispersed camping in the Ocala National Forest and in the Apalachicola National Forest but stays are limited to 14 days in a given month. I've been through both of these forests and they are very remote.
Not all Wal-Mart in Florida allow overnight parking due to city and county ordinances. There are some truck stops along the key Interstates that allow overnight parking but these aren't intended for snowbird stays. Boondocking may work in some places if you're doing a short stay or just passing thru but it's not a strategy I would recommend for an extended stay.
Condo and house renting prices also vary by location. We rented an ocean view condo in St. Augustine Beach for around $2,900 per month. A small house in The Villages will cost around $3,300 per month and higher during the winter months.
Snowbirding in Florida can be pricey, If you are focused on reducing expenses, then look for places away from popular areas and try for places in the Northern and Panhandle areas.
The Snowbird Lifestyle
For me, I put lifestyle over cost. It all about how I want to spend my days. I prefer to spend my winter months in a warm climate near the ocean. I like to spend my days being outside walking, biking, kite flying, or just sitting on the beach. I also like not having to drive to get to places. In the afternoon or evening, it's an easy walk to several places where I can enjoy some live music.
Also, I have grown to enjoy the RV park lifestyle where I get to socialize and spend time with my fellow snowbirds. We attend the weekly Saturday morning breakfasts at the RV park and play in the weekly corn hole tournament. Sunday afternoons are usually spent dancing at Doc Fords Rum Bar.
It's a great way to spend the winter.
You can see more or my journeys at my website: jdawgjourneys.com
Disclaimer: References to specific campgrounds, RV parks, or websites is for example only. These aren't listed as recommendations and I have no affiliation with any of the businesses or websites that are listed in this post. All rates and prices listed are approximate based current published rates at the time of this posting.